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Pamela Arnoldson: Director of Buddy Cruise

Buddy Cruise hosts an annual conference aboard a cruise ship for individuals with disabilities and their families or caregivers. On board, participants hear about disability related topics, learn from one another, and partake in tons of fun, educational activities. Buddy Cruise promotes disability awareness and gives families and caregivers access to important resources. Learn more about their impactful work here!

What was the inspiration behind Buddy Cruise? 

Buddy Cruise was founded in honor of my youngest son, Joseph, who has Down Syndrome. In 2007, our family did a walk in New York City to raise awareness for Down Syndrome. When we got back to our home in Florida, I told them about another Down Syndrome awareness walk going on in our community. My kids wanted to do something fun instead of walking, and I asked them for ideas. We had gone on cruises as a family, and they joked that we could do a Buddy Cruise instead of a walk. We started talking about it as a family, and eventually it turned into a real plan. Our first sailing was in 2008 and we had about 85 people on board. This past year, we had our largest cruise yet with 650 passengers. It’s grown into something bigger and better than we ever imagined. 

What does going on a Buddy Cruise entail? 

Every year, we pick a Royal Caribbean ship and destination for an eight night cruise. This year, we’re going to San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Croix. Our cruises have speaking sessions, interactive workshops, dances, themed nights, networking, and so much more. Speakers discuss anything from human rights, to self care, to behavior strategies, to education advocacy. Those sessions are with authors, actors with disabilities, layers, artists, and more. We have a program called Buddy Gives Back where we find facilities in the places that we visit that need some assistance. For example, we’ll bring art supplies, gently used books, and other materials to special needs schools. Since we don’t charter an entire ship, there are opportunities for other passengers on board to get involved and learn about our work. We host a walk on board the ship where people can form teams, raise money, and win prizes, and anyone on the ship is able to participate.  

Can you tell me about the individuals and families you work with?

Our work encompasses all ages and all abilities— if you can think of it, we serve that demographic. On board we have single parents, entire extended families, group homes, caregivers, and more. Since Joseph has Down Syndrome, we were focused on that community for our first year. People then started reaching out who had other disabilities and we welcomed them aboard. We have people who come with wheelchairs, feeding tubes, everything you can imagine. We get a lot of feedback from passengers saying that they never thought they would be able to take their child with special needs on a cruise, but this opportunity shows them that anything is possible. 

What is the best part of your job? 

What I love the most is being able to interact with the families we work with. On a regular cruise, it’s common to meet people and maybe make new friends. On a Buddy Cruise, however, you’re making a whole new family. It’s really special when people with this difficult commonality can connect on such a deep level. Seeing the Buddy Cruise through their eyes is so powerful. It’s also amazing to see how the other people on board the ship are moved by our work and inspired to get involved. Getting to witness the impact we have on people is incredible, and hearing the success stories from our families makes all the planning worth it. 


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